African Activists Fight for Rights of Disabled

Discrimination, marginalization, poverty: That's everyday life for many with disabilities in Africa. Activists are looking to Germany as an example.

Rachel Karchaje navigates her wheelchair through the large laundromat like a pro, easing between whirring machines. She could just let herself be pushed, but she refuses to do so - out of principle. Kachaje is the Minister for Disability and Elderly Affairs in Malawi. In Berlin she's looking to see how Germany integrates its disabled community.

About 25 disabled men and women work here in the laundromat. They iron, starch and fold white tablecloths, towels and clothes. The firm, "Mosaik," which is committed to more integration, trains the employees and makes them fit for the labor market.

"That's exactly how it should be," Karchaje says. "When we are talking about issues of disability, it's not an issue of charity, it's an issue of human rights. All people should be thinking in line with human rights."

Phitalis Were Masakhwe nods in agreement. The activist from Kenya also uses a wheelchair. For nearly 20 years he's fought for the rights of the disabled. He says awareness is the most important aspect. In some countries in Africa, disability is still considered a punishment or curse.

"We still have issues of stigma, we still have people hiding disabled children," Masakhwe says. "People are still ashamed of disability. So there is still a lot of information to be given to demystify disability. We need to intensify that education, that awareness, so that people can come to terms with the fact that disability can be caused and that anybody can be struck by disability."

Kachaje und Masakhwe's Germany visit was arranged by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. "Here in Germany there are many good approaches that the African countries can use as an example," says Merin Abbass, who works for the foundation's South Africa department.

Although there are no concrete numbers, Africa is home to an estimated 100 million people with disability. According to a 2011 report from the World Health Organization and the World Bank, these people have no access to schools, hospitals or social services. And they live in extreme poverty.

Condemned to poverty

"It's a vicious circle," says Looks Matoto. "When you have a disability, then you're destined to a life of poverty. And every time you try to shake this fate, you fail because you can't do it without outside help." Matoto works for Disabled People of South Africa, a non-government organization that is managed and led by people with disabilities. Matoto dreams of a South Africa in which everyone - with or without disability - has the same opportunity to find work.

Government assistance for people with disabilities is helpful, Matoto says. But this type of assistance alone can't be the only answer to poverty and joblessness.

"We want to be employed," Matoto says. "We do not want to do business where we fix old shoes for people - we want to own factories that manufacture shoes."

Matoto's home country of South Africa looks good on paper, when it comes to the rights of people with disabilities. There are numerous protective laws in place, and the constitution outlaws discrimination. And, just like Malawi and Kenya, South Africa signed the UN's .

Jobs mean independence

But the reality looks much different. Most disabled people can't afford a wheelchair, a pair of glasses or even a doctor's appointment. Getting around is difficult, especially in the countryside where the streets are in poor condition and there is no public transportation.

Tackling these barriers is a Herculean task. Even Minister Rachel Kachaje has no illusions. In her country, every other person is and there's the AIDS problem on top of that. The needs of disabled persons often take a backseat. But Kachaje's visit to Germany has given her courage.

"This has been a very good learning trip for me," Kachaje said. "Although we have got some workshops in Malawi, where disabled people can work - it is not to the standards I have seen here. If we can develop our structures, and make sure that the machinery, the equipment is there - I think we can create more jobs for disabled people in my country."

The minister knows what it means to fight resistance. She was three when she fell ill to polio. Since then, she's been paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. From her job as a telephone operator in a company, she worked her way into the government. Her lasting message? Don't give up.

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